Music Preview: Singer Chris Murrell keeps his musical options open

From hip-hop to Basie

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

It's safe to call Chris Murrell a jazz singer only because he's known for that -- after all, with the likes of Joe Williams in his corner, he probably didn't have much of a choice.

Chris Murrell comes into town as part of a trio Friday night.
Chris Murrell
Where: Rhythm House, South Fayette.
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Tickets: $10; 412-221-5010.

But it doesn't end nor did it start there.

Murrell, who most recently appeared in Pittsburgh in 2003 with the Roger Humphries Big Band, returns to the region Friday night, again with Humphries but this time in a trio setting, at the Rhythm House in South Fayette.

The lifelong resident of Winston-Salem, N.C., began singing at age 10 when "my mom forced me to go to [church] children's choir, and I was kicking and screaming. Back in those days rehearsal was from [noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays]," Murrell recalls, adding that he would have preferred to play ball.

But after that first rehearsal, Murrell told his mother, "I want to sing for the rest of my life." He also plays piano, but says, "I don't want to sit down behind an instrument."

After graduating in 1979 from the hometown Wake Forest University with a degree in theater, he began "doing the lounge thing with a trio, the country club circuit" and recording commercial jingles while working during the day at a couple of family businesses, including a funeral home.

Murrell's break came in 1991, when he was teaching at the North Carolina School for the Arts. Frank Foster, then the leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, came there to do a master class, heard Murrell sing Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and hired him on the spot.

"I had a week to shut down [everything I was doing]," he remembers. Then he joined the band in Saginaw, Mich. Murrell kept that gig until 2002, when "I came off the road to take care of my mother."

Though Murrell initially favored the soul sounds of Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, he lately has leaned toward the late Johnny Hartman as an influence when it comes to what he calls "the art of intimate singing -- he's one of the greatest."

Murrell also met Williams while touring with the Basie band: "He was in my corner, treating me like a son."

Murrell's theater degree helped out with a show he did in London last year -- "The Genius of Ray Charles," a tribute to the late singer-musician that he originally thought was simply a revue.

But the show had a 15-piece big band and 12 dancers, and it turned out that he had to do some dancing as well -- "6 1/2-hour dance rehearsals for two straight weeks." He recently turned down another chance to do the show in London, but he will be part of a U.S. tour that will start in September.

In 1994, Murrell got to say "thank you" to his childhood choir director, Ruthie Matthews, then on her deathbed. Just after Murrell came back from Japan with Basie, he and two of his cousins visited her. "We sang hymns until she died," he remembers.

Murrell is equally at home with R&B, gospel and even country. Until his stint with the Basie band, Murrell was even producing rap records, "but [the rappers] had to come positive," with no demeaning words for women.

"I love any kind of music -- I've probably done it all."

Rick Nowlin can be reached at or 412-263-3871.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?